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Aristotle, The Value-Form and Real Abstraction Daniel Burnfin

Introduction: Of all the thinkers of the history of philosophy mentioned in Marxs Capital, the appraisal Aristotle receives is one of the highest estimation. But how is one to understand Marxs statements about Aristotle there? Regarding Aristotles account of exchange and his lack of a conception of value (C 151), Marx states: Aristotle himself was unable to extract this fact, that, in the form of commodityvalues, all labour is expressed as equal human labour and therefore as labour of equal quality, by inspection from the form of value, because Greek society was founded on the labour of slaves, hence had as its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour-powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour because and insofar as they are human labour in general, could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion. This, however, becomes possible only in a society where the commodity-form is the universal form of the product of labour, hence the dominant social relation is the relation between men as possessors of commodities. Aristotles genius is displayed precisely by his discovery of a relation of equality in the valueexpression of commodities. Only the historical limitation inherent in the society in which he lived prevented him from finding out what in reality this relation of equality consisted of (C 152). It is the status of this in reality, or in truth, and fixed popular opinion that is what my thesis will hinge upon and must be unpacked here. In this paper I propose that there is in fact something more going on here than a vulgar reduction of philosophy to social construction, historicism, false consciousness, or psychologism. In doing this I will take up Alfred Sohn-Rethels reading of Marx, to elucidate Marxs reading of Aristotles comments on value in the Nicomachean Ethics. I maintain that Aristotle literally could not sustain the discovery he came across, or the truth of the value-form in his time, because human labor and its products were not yet actually equivalent in fact. Moreover, I will assert that one can keep Aristotles metaphysical position with respect to the incommensurability of things, while showing that they become actually commensurable by actually being exchanged in relation to one another in the total commodity chain of capitalist economies, if we take Sohn-Rethels notion of real abstraction seriously. Part One: Aristotle on Exchange Equivalence:
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In book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, there are two chapters which contain central passages on Aristotles view of what could be called the form of value and equivalence: chapters 3 and 5. In Chapter 3, Aristotle discusses distributive justice quantitatively, according to geometrical principle, relation or ratio. There he states, in any kind of action in which there is a more and less there is also what is equal. If, then, the unjust is unequal, the just is equal. He also calls this position an intermediate, and qua intermediate it must be between certain things, in which it is manifested (NE 84). He states that, unlike in arithmetical relations (where all entities count for one, despite actual proportional differences), in geometrical relations, the same equality [or ratio, pp. 85] will exist between the persons and between the things concerned; for as the latter the things concerned are related, so are the former, the persons (84): A is to B as C is to D (note: this is not simply a syllogism, but employs a third term not contained in the elements, but which is rather presupposed by them). Thus, stood in proper proportion to one another by way of an index that could render them comparable, there is a singular equivalence that outruns their differences as particular entities. Yet Aristotle states that if they are not equal, they will not have what is equal (85). A passage from Marxs Critique of the Gotha Program may me instructive by comparison here. Equal right under which particular individuals may be subsumed is actually a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measureable only by an equal standard in so far as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else is ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal, would have to be unequal (MER 530). In short, two basically different beings with different metabolic needs, when given the same or treated as the same, actually have a greater inequality imposed on their contingent yet unalterable physical condition the crude imposition of abstract equivalence can only generate more asymmetry (as in the arithmetical fashion, e.x. blind justice of liberalism). To make such a notion of equivalence work, one would first have
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Aristotle, The Value-Form and Real Abstraction Daniel Burnfin

to reduce all particular individuals to being the same, or find a proportion to establish equivalence without strict identity. Well aware of this, Aristotle rightly states: The just, then, is a species of the proportionate (NE 85), which is not simple identity. In chapter 5 of the book on Justice, Aristotle continues on this point. He states, in associations for exchange this sort of justice does hold men together reciprocity in accordance with a proportion and not on the basis of precisely equal return (88). This re-achieves a kind of sameness on a new level, as it were. It admits of and requires the differences of the parties and elements involved. Aristotle continues, it is not two doctors that associate for exchange, but a doctor and a farmer, or in general people who are different and unequal; but these must be equated. This is why all things that are exchanged must be somehow comparable (ibid.,). Here Aristotle comes very close to the value-form, yet his teleological understanding of money as a convention fixed by reasonable individuals, not unlike the fashion of a social contract, obscures any clear understanding of value as such. On his account, money is held apart from the goods that it measures, running alongside or mirroring them, as it were, in every instance of their value. He writes: It is for this end that money has been introduced, and it becomes in a sense an intermediate; for it measures all things, and therefore the excess and the defect how many shoes are equal to a house or to a given amount of food. The number of shoes exchanged for a house [or for a given amount of food] must therefore correspond to the ratio of builder to shoemaker. For if this not be so, there will be no exchange and no intercourse. And this proportion will not be effected unless the goods are somehow equal. All goods must therefore be measured by some one thing, as we said before (89). We find a similar helpful passage in Marx as well: [I]f I say a quarter of wheat exchanges with iron in a certain proportion, or the value of a quarter of wheat is expressed in a certain amount of iron, I say that the value of wheat and its equivalent in iron are equal to some third thing, which is neither wheat nor iron, because I suppose them to express the same magnitude in two different shapes. Either of them, the wheat or the iron, must, therefore, independently of the other, be reducible to this third thing which is their common measure (VPP 30). It follows from this passage, however, that the same would apply to money. For if we regarded the status of money vis--vis commodities as being itself the index of their

commensuration, we would reach a certain impasse when we address money in itself: if a certain amount of goods is acceptably replaced by a certain amount of money, then it is clear that money itself presupposes another index of value in common with the goods; it is not itself that index, as is illustrated by the awkward and tautological answers one gets upon posing the question, how much is 25 quid worth? Money is a good that is only good for other goods, its exchange value is its use value. Aristotle misses the value form in performing an intellectual abstraction, attempting to find the lowest common denominator of all participants and elements in the exchange relation, the some one thing common to all. Aristotle states: Now this unit [common to all] is in truth need, which holds all things together (for if men did not need one anothers goods at all, or did not need them equally, there would be either no exchange or not the same exchange); but money has become by convention a sort of representative of need; and this is why it has the name money (nomisma) because it exists not by nature but by law (nomos) and it is in our power to change it and make it useless (NE 89). Due to this generalization over differences, regarding the same one thing as the common substance of all exchange (though only to insist that goods are basically different later despite this common aspect), he arrives at the conservative conclusion of a political economy of cultural norms, and lack as the substance of money which represents it. Aristotle understands money as standing apart from the objects that it measures, and thereby leaving them unaffected, rather than itself being a commodity amongst other commodities. In a crucial passage, he states: Money, then, acting as a measure, makes goods commensurate and equates them; for neither would there have been association if there were not exchange, nor exchange if there were not equality, nor equality if there were not commensurability. Now in truth it is impossible that things differing so much should become commensurate, but with reference to need they becomes so sufficiently (90). Thus Aristotle overlooks the actuality of the very act of exchange as one that in fact renders objects commensurable, or exchange as a nexus of becomingcommensurable of different elements, absolutizing need. This is evident from his main concern that prices must be fixed before the exchange for there to be a just proportion. The point is, for Aristotle, however, that things remain somehow basically, or naturally

Aristotle, The Value-Form and Real Abstraction Daniel Burnfin

the same as before the exchange and commensuration, after the exchange and commensuration, by agreeing on price and then exchanging. But is there not something more at stake than fair prices in the discussion of what exchange is for itself? Is not the actuality of the exchange itself the very measure of what something is actually worth? He seems to understand the commensuration of goods by money as a sort of little fib that is good enough to pull off the deal, but which everyone supposedly would know is metaphysically erroneous. Herein lies the problem. The exchange situation is not over and against the things it makes commensurate, it does not leave them substantially unaltered, as it were, and it is not money that makes things commensurable: money could not be exchanged for goods if they were not already somehow commensurable!1 In two further passages, however, it is clear that Aristotle was already capable of formulating this point, but he did not make it explicit, and due to the actual circumstances of its articulation, the conclusion could not stick. Aristotle states: That exchange took place before there was money is plain; for it makes no difference whether it is five beds that exchange for a house, or the money value of five beds (90). From this it should be plain that value is neither money nor a need that money represents, nor would money be what renders things sufficiently commensurable over and against what things are in truth. In a second passage, Aristotle states: Now the same thing happens with money itself as to goods it is not always worth the same; yet it tends to be steadier (89). Again, it should be clear that if the same thing happens with money as goods, then their commensurability is something else.2 Part Two: Exchange and the Value-form in Marx:

Moreover, it must be asked: what is the logical status of this chain of implications that Aristotle gives? Instead of claiming that if not for commensurability that there would be no equivalence, and if not for equivalence that there would be no exchange, and finally therefore that without exchange that there would be no association, could one not just as well invert the chain? Because there is association that is not exchange, and yet exchange is a variety of association, one could say conversely: without association, no exchange; without exchange no equivalence; without equivalence no commensurability. But this would presuppose taking an entirely different stance with respect to philosophical definitions, the status of philosophy and have fundamental ramifications for Aristotles theory of exchange. 2 It is also worth mentioning that in the Politics, Aristotle comes near to discovering this different dimension of things, their exchange value, in his discussion of producing sandals for the unnatural end of selling, rather than wearing them. 5

On Marxs account, for there to be a value relation, there must be at least two terms (C 132) that are basically or qualitatively different from each other (what Marx calls a bearer and body of value; 143), but also are distinct from the index whereby they will become commensurable. These are use values and consist in any natural relation. Thus the one use-value of a commodity can confront another different commoditys use-value qua commodity, only by way of a 3rd, unnatural index or aspect that is neither of the previous two, as discussed in the section on Aristotle: its exchangevalue, expressed relatively through the other as its equivalent form, as the form in which it is directly exchangeable with other commodities (147). But value is neither a static 3rd term, nor merely theoretical measure held over and against the entities that it measures. If one does not accept any source, or axis of value, or agency that renders entities commensurable that is transcendent to the set of all human relations (ex. the naturalistic political economy of the physiocrats, or theological accounts of value), then it is a measure that comes about only through the very process of exchange itself. Thus in Capital Marx states, the value of a commodity is independently expressed [only] through its presentation [Darstellung] as exchange-value (166): only through its actuality qua thing posited as something to be exchanged on the market. It is this step that he takes beyond Aristotles exposition of exchange. Exchange value is not something accidental to the commodity qua commodity. It is only by being exchanged [therefore] that the products of labour acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility (ibid.). The act of exchange itself therefore opens up another dimension of value apart from the sensuous presence or use of the thing. He continues: Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see objects as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it (ibid.). But this dimension is not a world behind this world that confers its value upon it it is simply the form of the relations of exchange and production that go on behind the backs of the producers. It is a relation between persons [understood as, personae or bearers of relations] a relation concealed beneath a material shell (C 167). It is an active relation
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Aristotle, The Value-Form and Real Abstraction Daniel Burnfin

that is itself the becoming-commensurable of heterogeneous goods. It yields a quantification of different kinds of goods.3 But [w]hat does a solely quantitative difference [or measure] between things presuppose? The identity of their qualities (G 173), Marx writes, or their being commensurable in the exchange relation. He thus distinguishes the set of factually or empirically existing real entities from the set of social relations understood as magnitudes, or the non-empirical plane of relation or value of commodities qua thingsto-be-exchanged. He calls the latter something that appears a supra-natural property, which is purely social, while the former, the so called real world of things in fact conceals a social relation; the commodity thus seems to be endowed with its equivalent form, its property of direct exchangeability, by nature, just as much as its property of being heavy or its ability to keep us warm (C 149). Value thus exists in the vacillation between one domain and the other. Qua exchange-values, therefore, [c]ommodities posses an objective character as values only in so far as they are expressions of an identical social substance (138), yet [n]ot an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of commodities as physical objects (138). While on the other hand, an article can only be a commodity insofar as it satisfies a natural need, or so long as someone wants to buy it, or further does buy it: Therefore they only appear as commodities, or have the form of commodities, in so far as they possess a double form, i.e. natural form and value form (ibid.). Thus all commodities, when taken in certain proportions, must be equal in value (136), Marx writes, and [c]apital remains the same whether we put cotton in the place of wool, rice in the place of wheat, steamships in the place of railroads, provided only that the cotton, the rice, the steamships the body of capital have the same exchange value, the same price, as the wool, the wheat, the railroads, in which it was preciously embodied. The bodily form of capital may transform itself continually, while capital does not suffer the least alteration (WLC 29).

It is perhaps worth noting, in contrast to the crudely interpreted base and superstructure model, that Marx does not reduce social relations to empirical things. It is, rather, that the inertia and magnetism of the stupid empirical thing sitting before us and weighing on our minds, that arrests our attention and draws us away from the reality of immaterial relations in which one finds oneself. 7

The crucial point to draw here, with respect to what Aristotle claims, is that once the act of exchange has actually happened or once products are produced to be sold rather than to be used for their particular ends (and this is the rub), it can no longer be maintained that the entities are actually different from their exchange value as that which effectively does render them commensurable in fact: for by what measure of what counts as real could we assert such a claim? Thus the apparent problem of the status of money is resolved by putting it on par with commodities. Value is thus the element in which both money and commodities swim, yet which itself emerges from their movement. Now at this point one may object that such an account of value commits a blatant contradiction, were one to insist on flattening out the production process into a linear process. This would be the case, were it not for the way Marx conceives of theory and value as retrospective and retroactive. In the section on the method of political economy in the Grundrisse, Marx insists on the importance of distinguishing between the logical unfolding of concepts and categories of active theory at present as historical results, and their actual historically contingent genesis (coming close to Sohn-Rethels real abstraction). Thus value is emphatically not the night in which all cows are black, or all things are the same, even though it renders them commensurable now. This is because, for Marx, value is basically a relation or proportion that happens, in which things are actually being exchanged, or enter the all-sided flux of exchanged objects, not its theoretical witness standing nearby. But most importantly, Marx states that [v]alue is realized only in exchange (C 177), and that the product, unlike a mere natural object, proves itself to be, becomes, a product only through consumption, and thereby creates a need for new production (G 91). The article that is produced to be sold, while it is being produced, will have been valuable, in the future anterior, if it will in fact be proven to be the case in the actual event of its purchase and consumption, that it was valuable by being purchased and consumed. (So, for instance, goods that are produced but not consumed, then, are not merely valueless, they are a dead end of capitals selfvalorization and the destruction of value invested in them.) Marx writes that the division of labour converts the product of all-round labour into a commodity, and thereby makes necessary its conversion into money. At the same time, it makes it a matter of chance
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Aristotle, The Value-Form and Real Abstraction Daniel Burnfin

whether this transubstantiation takes place (C 203). It is only the act of exchange can prove whether the labour is useful for others, and its product is consequently capable of satisfying the needs of others (180). Thus all theoretical [r]eflection begins post festum (168), and a theoretical category such as exchange value leads an antediluvian existence (G 101): Here he echoes Goethe with respect to economy and its comprehension: In the beginning there was the deed. They have therefore already acted before thinking (C 180).4 Value is in its actuality a double-sided movement of positing equivalence and retroactive retotalization. Capital buys on its own credit to pay its debt off with its own dividends later, so to speak, if it does not fail. This is the constant reduction of goods and services (and humans) to a common equivalent and its form of expression (standard average labour) that occurs in capitalist economies. Part Three: Real Abstraction and Commensurability: In Alfred Sohn-Rethels reading of Marx and critique of traditional epistemology, one finds a literal reading of the term abstraction that is not unsupported by Marxs own writings, though the exact term does not occur there.5 There is much to be said for a possible re-examination of the labor theory of value, in light of Sohn-Rethels work, though I can only briefly mention its most general significance for this discussion with Aristotle. For Sohn-Rethel, the collective or complex aspect of social activity, over and beyond the individual ends of particular agents, performs a certain kind of abstraction other than by thought. Now, if one understands abstraction in its original sense, as a drawing away, or subtraction, and also admits of a socially complex gestalt dimension to collective life, then one can see that such an abstraction could occur at the interstices
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In another field of analysis, Freud has made a similar point that illustrated the logic at work here with complete lucidity: by making things larger and coarser, can draw our attention to normal conditions which would otherwise have escaped us. Where it points to a breach or a rent, there may normally be an articulation present. If we throw a crystal to the floor, it breaks; but not into haphazard pieces. It comes apart along its lines of cleavage into fragments whose boundaries, though they were invisible, were predetermined by the crystals structure. Mental patients are split and broken structures of this same kind (SE vol. XXII; 58). 5 Throughout the Grundrisse and the Contribution to A Critique of Political Economy, Marx speaks of capital as an abstraction that has a real existence (G 449), or the reduction of labor to standard average labor as an abstraction which is made every day in the social process of production. The conversion of all commodities into labour-time is no greater an abstraction, and is no less real, than the resolution of all organic bodies into air (CCPE 31). Also in a letter to Engels, dated April 2nd, 1858, Marx speaks of value as having no substance other than labour, stating that although the definition of value is an abstraction, it is a historical abstraction, rather than a mere subjective whimsy (MECW vol. 40; 298).

of individual actions, and serves to sort the field of social objects as though by a coherently willed decision, yet not by any one individual, nor the customary cognitive abstraction of a single mind in classical epistemology. It is Aristotles remaining at the level of the latter proves to be his weakness. For Sohn-Rethel, it is the form of exchange by which individuals accomplish this ontological abstraction, which then effectively sorts, sifts, or combs the empirical field of contents or objects in a given society or economy, as it were. This construes the content of the field of possible salient features in advance, which could be later arrived at by a particular ordinary act of intellectual abstraction, that gives us lowest common denominators of perceived entities. So, for instance, the homogenous synchronic object world of natural science is tracked on the backdrop of this emergence of identity via the flux of differences in exchange (ex. 9:15 train to Geneva). Sohn-Rethel thus effectively caches out a version of Kants transcendental idealism into a sort of transcendental materialism, the commodity form effectively doing the work of the synthetic unity of apperception (IML 77), as a social synthesis or nexus rerum (19), serving as non-psychological (42) or material matrix for. (For example, one only needs to visit the grocery store or place of work and manufacture to find a materialist version of the synthetic a priori: The goods or materials and means of production are always already there for an given finite agent the field of objects or commodities is always already construed according to the forms of production, consumption and exchange.) But more specifically, this abstraction consists in reality of the separation of use from exchange value and then enaction of the latter (24). As we saw in Marx, value is only realized after the fact of production, it does not already have its value as such at the outset. For particular individuals this means something quite specific: one must behave as though the use value does not change, as though time stops, as though the commodity as a sensuous thing does not corrupt or alter while it appears in a shop window as an exchange value as though by nature, though of course this activity itself moves in an ever changing world. In other words, one makes a certain supposition, or leap of faith in the act of consumption, with respect to the object, and postulates the equivalence of the money given for the goods received and the goods received themselves (IML 46). Whatever the truth value of this supposition may be, it has real effects: the realization of
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Aristotle, The Value-Form and Real Abstraction Daniel Burnfin

augmented value, or surplus-value. Things are thus actually made more than sufficiently commensurable in truth, by exchanging individuals supposing that they already are, though this is neither necessary, nor natural. Equivalence is arrived at through a historically contingent mode of production. Therefore it is not in a theoretical abstraction that one must find the solution to this situation, however, as in Aristotles assumption that the index of value would have to be the lowest common denominator of all parties included, need, but rather, in a practical and real act: Sohn-Rethel states that in exchange, it is their actions alone that are abstract, not their thoughts (26); the action is social, the minds are private (29). Who knows what one thinks of in consumption. On Sohn-Rethels account, even the average worker-consumer cannot but undertake the task the Hegel claimed to be that of the philosopher: namely, to think ones time in thoughts, or to raise it to the level of the concept, because for this account, it is the form of the social synthesis that enables the conceptual form of thinkings actuality, they are identical (14): the is an abstraction in thought, which itself not of thought. Thus value is not simply the lowest common denominator of all products of human labor (c.f. human labour in the abstract, socially necessary labour time), and exchange value is not merely a theoretical or intellectual abstraction. In doing this one would effectively employ arithmetical method theoretically and illegitimately, and denies that there can be an actual proportion reached in exchange itself. On the contrary, according to Sohn-Rethel, such abstractions are only in fact possible because they are already actual the leg-work has already been done for them by the real ontological abstraction of unreflective exchange activity in everyday life. Therefore it is also this capacity that granted the permanence of a fixed popular opinion to the concept of human equality, as mentioned by Marx, on this account, and not merely the power of doxa. In a similar vein, Marx already noted this point with respect to the economic conception of labor, thus of the laborer (man) as such: The production of commodities must be fully developed before the scientific conviction emerges, from experience itself, that all the different kinds of private labour (which are carried on independently of each other, and yet, as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour are in a situation of all-round dependence on each other) are continually being reduced to
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the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. The reason for this reduction is that in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature (C 168). Concluding Remarks: To conclude, if we simply hold Aristotle to the standards of what is clear, given contemporary capitalist relations, one would have to say that he conflated exchange value and use value, or mistook the virtual plane of value as something that would either have to be coextensive with the sensuous reality of objects, or merely be a necessary fiction. If we read Aristotle as commenting on the same thing as what occurs in modern economies, then we would be forced to say that he is wrong with respect to economy, or is a bad economist. But to insist on such a rigidly ahistorical measure would be to deny that there is basic historical change in some sense. The purpose of this paper is not to show how wrong Aristotle was, but to show how wrong he may be for us now, and how this very wrongness is not simply a shortcoming, but itself hangs together with the point of real abstraction. My thesis is that we cannot hold Aristotle to what is clear today, on the basis of the relations of production and consumption of capital, because at that time, the grounds for what we take as a given was not yet actually the case. This is only to say what borders on truism, but is nonetheless instructive: things were not actually already equivalent, before being made equivalent. That is, if the real abstraction of capitalist economies had not yet occurred and thereby rendered all things commensurable, or made bearers of generic concepts available to cognitive or intellectual abstraction, by having first rendered general objects to be conceptualized as such, then Aristotle would not be mistaken in claiming that things were not basically equivalent. Yet after being rendered in some way equivalent by way of the capital index, it may still be said that things, torn from these relations that render them equivalent, are somehow heterogeneous. But one cannot claim that things are not actually commensurable simply because their becomingcommensurable in capitalist exchange is historically contingent. One may therefore claim that Aristotle was not in fact talking about the same thing as modern discourse on modern economies at all and thereby keep his basic metaphysical insight that things are basically different. This may also serve as a ground for objecting to capital as a vast homogenizing machine. We find a way out of this impasse, on the other hand, by
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granting exchange its own legitimacy as something actual, or actualizing (and thus also find a way out of such spurious philosophical impasses as discussions of realism or nominalism etc.). Moreover, it would not be altogether unaristotelian to claim that because we judge the status of something as real by its actuality, that things actually are commensurable in the case that they are actually exchanged and thereby rendered commensurable in the act of exchange, even though this means disagreeing with him textually with respect to political economy.

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